It is easy to theorize about workforce optimization and workforce management, but when it comes to putting theories into practice, the importance of workforce planning cannot be overestimated. Put simply, this process of planning is where the real work begins when it comes to optimizing and managing a team.
What is workforce planning?
Workforce planning is the process of putting proactive – rather than reactive – strategies in place so managers can make good human resources decisions. Especially in this era of constant upheavals, best practice workforce planning means that managers are able to anticipate change instead of being surprised by events. Coping with unexpected events have become part and parcel of every manager’s working life, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold at the start of 2020. But with proper workforce planning, organizations can remain productive and grow no matter what challenges emerge along the way.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development defines the workforce planning process as “analyzing the current workforce, determining future workforce needs [and] identifying the gap between the workforce you will have available and your future needs”.
Once these three key tasks have been achieved, organizations then need to identify and implement solutions to ensure its goals can be met. Proper workforce planning, undertaken with clarity and foresight, is as important to an organization’s success as having a sustainable business model or keeping operational costs under control.
Why is workforce planning important?
Challenges, such as high staff turnover and being caught out when circumstances or events change and your workforce is not equipped to cope, cost organizations time and money.
Workforce planning will never entirely eliminate staff turnover – and nor should it, as zero staff turnover is a symptom of an organization that has lost its dynamism and agility – but good planning can stop an ongoing exodus of employees. Looking at the reasons why employees leave and implementing strategic workforce planning to ensure better retention and job satisfaction for everyone in the team is a vital part of workforce planning. Retaining top talent will boost bottom lines.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that change is inevitable, it can seem overwhelming, but it does not have to derail an organization. An ongoing reality of the pandemic has been higher-than-usual staff absences because of illness, but this sort of obstacle is one of the reasons why workforce planning is essential to prevent being caught out when employees are unwell. Even without the pandemic, there will still be challenges that might create staff shortages, so good workforce planning helps find practical, cost-effective solutions.
As well as being able to manage challenges without panic, workforce planning comes into its own in good economic times. When businesses grow, especially when they grow quickly, strategies to ensure the workforce can keep up with the increased demand are invaluable. The right combination of robustness and flexibility will stand your organization in good stead.
What does workforce planning involve?
In practical terms, workforce planning starts with the analysis of the organization’s human resources.
Key steps in workplace analysis include:
- Examining and documenting the composition and demographics of the workforce
- Looking at turnover figures, including resignations, terminations and retirement
- Undertaking a skills audit involving every employee to identify the strengths in the organizations, as well as the weaknesses
- Studying the workplace structure and hierarchies to make sure it makes sense, is fit for purpose and flexible enough to cope with change
- Identifying any urgent gaps that might need to be filled to ensure business continuity and growth
- Pinpointing long-term needs that will be affected by the size, skills and structure of the workforce
The workforce planning process needs to anticipate future needs so the organization can manage internal and external changes, not become overwhelmed during periods of significant growth, and ensure everyone remains productive and motivated, even when times are tough.
Once detailed analysis has taken place, and future challenges and opportunities have been identified, the next step is to come up with real world strategies to ensure your workforce is robust, motivated and ready for the future.
Going beyond HR meetings
The workforce planning process might seem like it is just a lot of meetings for negligible results, but this should never be the case. Most of us have at some point wearily rolled our eyes and declared that a long, tiresome, unproductive meeting should have been an email. The curse of the pointless meeting is why it is important to make workforce planning conversations count.
To be able to conduct the in-depth analysis and have the honest discussions required to plan effectively, meetings are an inevitable first step. If those meetings are not effective, the entire workforce planning process can be doomed to fail.
It doesn’t matter if the meetings take place in person or virtually, workforce planning must involve conversations where everyone is empowered to speak up. If there are serious skills shortfalls, for example, these need to be raised so they can be addressed. Finding skills gaps should not be a big problem as long as the willingness is there to invest in training and internal mentorship so everyone wins.
Clear-eyed, honest, transparent analysis will shine a light on the strategies that are needed to help meet goals and develop every individual. Defining and developing strategies is the important step that follows the analysis.
After the meetings have ended, it is time to stop talking and start acting. The strategies that emerge from the analysis need to be implemented. A complete organizational restructure might be needed. This part of the workforce planning process can be the hardest – talk is cheap but taking action takes time, commitment, energy and often money.
Investment in training, creating new jobs and undertaking a recruitment drive, promoting talented individuals, procuring technology to make life easier for employees working remotely: these are all examples of practical actions from the workforce planning process that may seem onerous or expensive, but can pay dividends in the long run. And it is the long-term benefits that need to remain in focus here – a short-term outlook will not lead to a workforce that has the resilience or the flexibility to cope with whatever new challenges and opportunities are on the horizon.
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